Speaking of dharma, one might think of the Bhagavadgītā, which narrates Kṛṣṇa’s teaching to Arjuna before the beginning of the great war at Kurukṣetra. Although Kṛṣṇa and Arjuna are not facing the pandemic, the conversation between them is about life and death of countless warriors and the wellness of the whole universe.
I am teaching a First-Year Writing Seminar for undergraduate students at Cornell this Fall semester. My course focuses on the Bhagavadgītā and its various perspectives like religious, philosophical, spiritual, political, social, and so on. Some questions that students ask me in the class are: What is dharma during this pandemic? What is the right thing to do? How can we protect ourselves and those we love?
Re-reading the Bhagavadgītā with the students, I have understood that one of its essential issues is how to make a decision. With the help of Kṛṣṇa, Arjuna is trying to decide if he should fight his relatives and people he respects or not. The wellness of everyone and everything involved is at stake. Now, the question is, how can one know what dharma is in that situation?
One of the most common terms used to translate this word is “duty.” It is also widely interpreted as “detached action” (niṣkāma–karma) based on the translations and commentaries of influential people like Mahatma Gandhi. One example of the key verses on detached actions is Bhagavadgītā 2.47. Here is Gandhi’s version of the verse in English translation: “Action alone is thy province, never the fruits thereof; let not thy motive be the fruit of action, nor shouldst thou desire to avoid action” (2011, 19).
However, how can we follow such a detached action? Does it mean performing one’s own action regardless of the result? Is it all about “doing your duty no matter what”? Or, should we care about the results of what we are supposed to do?
In this regard, I bring in Sandeep Sreekumar’s “An Analysis of Consequentialism and Deontology in the Normative Ethics of the Bhagavadgītā” (2012) to give us some ideas.
In his article, Sandeep Sreekumar proposes that Kṛṣṇa’s teaching of dharma should not be reduced to a deontological theory which justifies a duty regardless of its consequence. On the other hand, the teaching in the Bhagavadgītā is intent on good consequences through detached actions. Through the analysis of the text, Sreekumar characterizes the teaching as rule-consequentialism based on the consequences of liberation from the cycle of births (mokṣa) and the wellness of the world (lokasaṃgraha). In other words, Kṛṣṇa, in his teaching, highlights the consequences of Arjuna’s fighting, both the consequence that is not directly related to Arjuna and the one that affects Arjuna personally. The first consequence is the world’s wellness, which is indirect or “agent-neutral” for Arjuna. The other one is liberation, which is “agent-relative” since Arjuna is the one who would attain liberation if he acts without attachment. The twin consequences can be accomplished through the performance of dharma or “detached action” according to Sreekumar (2012, 310):
Moreover, the two consequences of lokasaṃgraha and mokṣa can be brought about only if the agent performs in a detached fashion the particular duties assigned to him or her by the rules of the caste-system: rules which are themselves justified by the fact that, if they are performed in the right, detached fashion, they will bring about, simultaneously and inevitably, the beneficial consequences both of lokasaṃgraha for the world and mokṣa for the agent’s ātman. This means that the theory assumed by the Argument from Detached Action [of Kṛṣṇa] is a rule-consequentialism.
What I gather from Sreekumar’s argument is that our actions result in consequences. If we perform our actions without detachment, they create good consequences for ourselves and others. We are indeed living under different rules, and to perform detached actions is not the same as in Arjuna’s context. However, when in doubt, we may think about the consequences of our actions. Without attachment, we can perhaps be aware that our actions can bring about wellness for ourselves and the world even in difficult circumstances and then decide what dharma is.
Gandhi, Mohandas. 2011. The Bhagavad Gita According to Gandhi. Translated by Mahadev Desai. Blacksburg, Wilder Publications, Inc.
Sreekumar, Sandeep. 2012. “An Analysis of Consequentialism and Deontology in the Normative Ethics of the Bhagavadgītā.” Journal of Indian Philosophy 40 (3): 277–315. doi:10.1007/s10781-012-9154-3.